Have you ever played the game of deciding which people – alive or dead – would come to an imaginary dinner party? For me, Ella Mary Leather, a collector of folklore in Herefordshire, would definitely have a seat at the table.
Ella Mary Leather collected and recorded morris dances and the tunes to accompany them, as well as folk songs, superstitions, folk tales and remedies. Her collections of folklore been key to remembering the rural traditions once prevalent in the county.
The life of Ella Mary Leather
Born in 1874 in Bidney, near the Herefordshire village of Dilwyn, Ella was the daughter of a farmer. She went to school in Hereford and married Francis Holdsworth Leather in 1893.
Ella and her husband lived in Weobley, another village in Herefordshire, where her husband was a practising solicitor. Together they had three children, but sadly only one child outlived his parents.
Throughout her life, Ella was typically busy. She was someone who prioritised others in her community, visiting the sick, the elderly and the poor when times were hard.
Ella’s interest in old traditions in Herefordshire led her to collect all sorts of remedies, folk stories, dances and superstitions from people she met. She eventually pulled together her written collections into a book, ‘The folklore of Herefordshire’, which was first published in 1912.
She collaborated with several other folklore collectors of her time. Her collaboration with Ralph Vaughan Williams led to the collection of many folk songs and tunes for dances, and together they co-authored ‘Twelve traditional carols from Herefordshire’, which was published in 1920, bringing Herefordshire songs to a wider audience. She was also friends with Cecil Sharp, another collector of English folk music and contributor towards the revival of morris dancing.
Later in her life she was one of the founding members of the Weobley branch of the Women’s Institute and its first president. In addition to her interest in folklore, she was also a keen amateur photographer.
How Ella Mary Leather became interested in folklore
There’s a couple of things which likely inspired Ella’s lifelong interest in folklore.
Ella herself credited a women named Martha, an older lady from her childhood who was reportedly full of stories and superstitions.
It’s also likely that as the daughter of a farmer in Herefordshire she helped with hop picking, which was a social activity, during which people of all walks of life would work in the fields together, sharing stories while they worked.
After moving to Weobley, Ella frequently visited country folk in their houses in times of hardship, so it is likely that she learnt about local customs, traditions, folk knowledge and remedies from these trips. At the time, traditional home remedies passed down from mother to daughter would have been widely used for curing all sorts of ailments. There was a doctor in Weobley, but he charged for his services, so ordinary people would only have summoned him in dire circumstances.
It is not clear exactly when Ella started collecting folklore, but she was invited to write a chapter on folklore in Reverend Compton Reade’s publication, ‘Memorials of Old Herefordshire’ in 1904 so she must have established a reputation as a local collector by then. She also corresponded with Charlotte Burne, who published ‘Shropshire Folklore’ in 1883. It’s very likely that Charlotte offered Ella guidance on how to go about collecting folklore.
How Ella Mary Leather collected folklore
Ella collected folklore, songs, stories and dances from local residents, particularly in and around Weobley, and also gypsy families, visiting them out in the fields while they worked, or in their caravans or shelters.
Two notable contributors to her collection of songs were Mrs Caroline Bridges of Pembridge, who was noted to have a particularly fine, deep voice and also William Colcombe, who lived in a workhouse in Weobley and only had one leg.
She did not operate alone and recruited several Weobley residents to help with her collecting efforts. This included her niece, Nona, who recollected: “Ella used to take me around in the dog-cart, to visit old folk where she had heard folk songs could be sung. My part was to note them down with the aid of a tuning fork and my own ear!”
Ella Mary Leather’s collaboration with Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ella collaborated with people undertaking collection of folk songs and dances from different parts of England. This group included Cecil Sharp, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Sidgwick, George Butterworth, Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Her collaboration with Ralph Vaughan Williams was particularly influential, as he lent her an Edison Phonograph, allowing her to record tunes which he then noted down. Vaughan Williams frequently corresponded with Ella and visited Herefordshire to join her while collecting songs. Together they visited old cottage folk, gypsy encampments and the local workhouse to gather material.
Vaughan Williams respected her, and recognised how she connected with the people they visited when collecting songs. Writing an obituary notice for her, he said: ‘A good folk-lorist requires to be scientifically accurate, artistically imaginative and humanly sympathetic. It is the combination of these qualities that makes the success of Mrs. Leather’s Folklore of Herefordshire … As to her human sympathy, one only had to accompany her, as was more than once my privilege, on a folk-song collecting expedition among the gypsies of Herefordshire, to be astonished at her friendly reception by those proud and suspicious people. She understood them and they understood her; they knew that both she and Colonel Leather were willing and anxious to help and advise them in all their difficulties and in return they gave of their best.’
Ella obtained numerous recordings of folk tunes, often used to accompany morris dances. A key contributor of tunes was the gypsy fiddler John Locke, a member of a gypsy family who travelled up and down the Welsh borderlands.
Most of what survives of Ella’s collection of dances and songs is now preserved in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House. One of her collected dances ‘Haste to the wedding’ was performed at the first national festival of folk dance in 1926.
All in all, Ella Mary Leather’s collections of folklore, songs and dances made an important contribution to remembering traditions from Herefordshire. She would have been an interesting person to meet and talk to (or invite to a dinner party) and she made a difference in the world by simply following her interests and being kind to the people she met along the way.